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|Accidental hero: 'Beneath his brooding exterior, lurks an uncomplicated soul who just wants to make people laugh'
It must be the black hair and saucer-like eyes, which have so often cast Robert Powell in the role of the suffering hero.
As Jesus, in the Seventies TV series Jesus Of Nazareth, Thomas Hardy's woeful Jude The Obscure and the tortured composer Gustav Mahler, Powell has earned a reputation as a weighty and serious actor. Among this venerable back catalogue, his recent TV role as Jasper Carrot's bumbling sidekick in BBC comedy The Detectives seems like a bit of an anomaly.
But is appears the actor, now in his fifties, has been grossly miscast for much of his 37-year career. Beneath his brooding exterior, lurks an uncomplicated soul who just wants to make people laugh.
"I adore making people laugh, " says Powell. "I think I enjoy that more than anything else. I should have been a comedian really. It's an accident that I became a serious actor."
His latest theatre role as a scheming murderer in Murder By Misadventure, at the Cheltenham Everyman Theatre, doesn't exactly sound like a laugh a minute but, as with the man himself, appearances are often deceptive.
"Audiences have been ecstatic, " says Powell. "It's a thriller where nothing is quite what it seems and nobody guesses the ending. "No one has any idea what's happening and there's a lot of humour in it." Powell says his "character is kind of irrelevant". It's a simple straightforwardly entertaining play, no method acting required, and Powell is just in it for the fun. "I don't do things in my life anymore that I don't enjoy, " he says. "After 37 years in the business, I can do that. Otherwise I'd rather retire or do something else. If I can't enjoy it now when can I enjoy it?"
But Powell seems to have been enjoying himself all along. His list of "favourite" roles includes pretty much everything memorable he's ever appeared in: Jesus Of Nazareth, Doomwatch, Mahler, Jude, The Thirty Nine Steps.
For a new generation of TV-viewers, he is best known for his role in The Detectives. It's not a role that was ever likely to test his acting prowess but then Powell doesn't really feel the need to do that anymore. And anyway, Jasper Carrot, now a multi-millionaire thanks to his investment in Celador, the company behind Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? , is a good friend.
Unlike many a cagey actor, Powell is much more animated when discussing his own philosophies than the inner-workings of his fictional characters. "My general philosophy is to stay open to new experiences and never shut down, " says Powell. "You have to give anything a try and never say 'no'' until you've done it."
Thanks to this ethos, earlier this year Powell found himself competing in a round the world yacht race. "If someone had said to me 18 months ago I'd be ocean racing, I would have told them it was the most ridiculous suggestion in the world, " says Powell.
"I couldn't imagine anything worse. Now I can't imagine anything more exhilarating." But perhaps the most daunting part of the challenge could have been the prospect of competing against his wife, Barbara, who he married 26 years ago when she was one of the famous Pans People dance troupe on Top of the Pops.
"I actually sailed against her from New Zealand toAustralia earlier this this year, " says Powell. "Some bright spark on another boat thought it would be a good idea to ask me to compete for one short section. I beat her and nearly won the leg."
Powell will be in search of new adventures when he comes to Cheltenham next week. He and costar Liza Goddard are old friends. "During the tour we'll be exploring with our maps and finding a nice pub for lunch, " he says.
Powell left school and began a law degree but very soon drifted into the theatre. This was obviously a bone of contention with his father, and something Powell can identify with now that he has children of his own.
"You worry about your offspring, " says Powell. "I wish my father had been alive to see me get my honorary MA, 28 years later. I've even been awarded an honorary doctorate now. He would have been very impressed by that."
Emma Smith, 2001 (?)
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